Wharton v. Chappell

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 08-27-2014
  • Case #: 11-99016
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Graber for the Court; Circuit Judges Fletcher and Paez.
  • Full Text Opinion

Occasional sightings by the jury of the petitioner in shackles does not establish prejudice; Also, in an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, both deficient performance and prejudice must be established, which lead to a “reasonable probability” of a different outcome in the proceedings; Further, during the penalty phase of a capital crime, counsel must sufficiently investigate and prepare in order to present and explain the importance of existing extenuating factors.

In 1986, a jury found George H. Wharton guilty of first-degree murder. During the guilt phase of the trial, the jury did not hear evidence of Wharton’s 1975 crimes—murder, forcible rape, and burglary—but did learn this evidence during the penalty phase, afterward returning a verdict of death. After the California Supreme Court affirmed both the conviction and the sentence, Wharton filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 habeas corpus petition in federal district court. Wharton argued that (1) because the jury saw him in shackles, his due process rights were violated, and (2) counsel was ineffective during the guilt and penalty phases. In 2009, the district court denied all claims. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that Wharton’s due process rights were not violated because “occasional sightings” in shackles outside the courtroom are not inherently prejudicial. In regards to the ineffective assistance of counsel claims, the panel applied the Strickland v. Washington analysis, whereby both deficient performance and prejudice must be established, leading to a “reasonable probability” of a different outcome in the proceedings. Accordingly, the panel held that during the guilt phase, counsel did not pursue the defense of intoxication and mental disease because it was reasonable to believe that it may have opened the door for the jury to learn of Wharton’s 1975 crimes. Furthermore, during the penalty phase, the panel held that the district court erred in dismissing Wharton’s claim because counsel did not sufficiently investigate and prepare in order to present and explain the importance of existing extenuating factors. Specifically, counsel failed to investigate whether Wharton’s half-brother’s was available to testify regarding evidence of extensive sexual abuse, thus creating a reasonable probability that the jury may not have returned a verdict of death. AFFIRMED IN PART, VACATED IN PART, AND REMANDED.

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